Author David Foster Wallace, his pursuit of poet/memoirist Mary Karr, and #metoo

David Foster Wallace is considered one of the greatest writing voices of his generation. His attempt to overthink his own attempts at sincerity - from his novels, to his articles, to his legendary “This is Water” commencement speech - and his suicide after his struggles with mental illness - all result in a body of work and a legendary persona held up as someone who really, really Tried, and succeeded in some wonderful, important works.

I am a huge DFW fan. I picked his first book, The Broom of the System, out at the library right when it came out because I thought the cover was interesting. Realized it was amazing and so kept an eye on him and was stunned and delighted as he because a crossover literary success, something so rare these days.

After he died, a first, quality biography was published by a New Yorker writer, D.T. Max:

He mentions that Dave had a relationship with Mary Karr, Texas poet and the memoirist whose books Lit and Cherry are often pointed to as THE books that have kicked off the Memoir genre that has continued to thrive through books like Wild, The Glass Castle, etc.

D.T. Max makes it clear that Wallace pursued Mary Karr in unhealthy ways, but it comes off as “Dave being Dave,” a passionate man pursuing his soulmate. Eric Clapton pursuing Patti Boyd Harrison*.

Well, here is an article from Jezebel where Mary Karr basically says “no, you guys have not been listening - he was deeply abusive.”

Oh my god. That’s fucked up.

I am still processing this. It’s not like I can turn off my respect for, and enjoyment of DFW’s writing. But he sounds like a human who’s damage was far worse that I had understood, and I need to factor that into my view of him and his work.

Anyone else a DFW fan? Are you aware of this?
*a legendary story, but also kinda skeevy in its ways.

Well, I can’t stand his writing. Mannered, tedious, pretentious navel-gazing. I certainly think he received far more attention and praise than many other writers precisely because of his position of privilege as a white man. See also: Jonathan Franzen (though I think Franzen is a better writer than Wallace).

His abusive and obsessive behavior toward Mary Karr is extremely disturbing. The fact that his biographer evidently downplayed it to such a degree strikes me as either extraordinarily blinkered or intellectually dishonest. (Disclaimer: I have not read the biography, I’m reacting to Karr’s words.) To a certain extent, though, I do think it is possible to separate an artist’s work from his/her life. I know that isn’t a popular view these days. If I enjoyed Wallace’s writing, I would imagine that I’d still enjoy it even with the knowledge that he was a rather appalling human being.

D.T. Max’ bio of Wallace was published less than 6 years ago. It’s appalling that, in this day and age, a biographer seemingly brushed off those incidents as unimportant in his treatment of Wallace, rather than digging a bit more to see whether these incidents were part of a larger pattern of behavior. Neither of those actions is exactly trivial: you can kill someone with a coffee table, let alone by pushing them out of a car.

I’ve read a fair bit of Wallace, but not all. Infinite Jest was first, and it made an impression. A few years ago I found out that he had been treated for addiction at a facility right where the fictional recovery house is supposed to be in IJ. Art imitating life. And it was only about a quarter-mile away from where I lived when I first moved to Boston.

I hadn’t realized he’d had such a troubled life. I have Max’s biography in my “to read” stack. I’ll remember this thread when I get to it.

Can’t remember if it was Mary Karr, but I did hear an interview with an ex-girlfriend being interviewed and she claimed( quite matter-of-factly and without much heat )that he hit every woman he was ever in a long-term relationship with. He honestly seems to have been a pretty fucked up human being, whether due to mental illness or just a mercurial personality( or both, the one feeding the other ).

I discovered David Foster Wallace the day after he died, thanks to a thread on here, probably started by WordMan. I read an essay online, and then read Broom of the System, two books of essays, and Infinite Jest. I also read the interview book from David Lipsky. I read the Max biography when it came out.

I knew from the Max book and some comments I had seen from Mary Karr elsewhere that he had been pretty shitty to her. I didn’t realize the extent. I believe that his relationship with Karr coincided with the worst of his drinking. That doesn’t excuse anything., just provides a bit of context.

I read whatever I run into about Wallace, but don’t seek out stuff about him like I used to. I had not heard of stuff like the ex-girlfriend comments Tamerlane mentioned.

He wrote some things that have had an impact on how I think about being kind and thoughtful, like the Kenyon speech and a piece about 9/11 called The View From Mrs. Thompson’s. Everything of his that I have read has influenced how I think of myself and how I relate to other people.

It would be nice if the people whose writing I admire were admirable themselves. As one of my most-favorite, least-admirable authors wrote, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

I will continue to admire the work.

Well stated. Pretty much where I am coming to.

In the long run, we’re all bastards.

I like to think I’m more of an insufferable prick.

Where do you draw the line between mental illness and character flaws? I don’t KNOW. This question has baffled me for years and continues to do so, every time I have to deal with someone in my life who has problematic behavior. Where should compassion end and judgment begin? I DON’T KNOW. I don’t think I will ever know.

I always found Wallace’s writing to be very pretentious and tedious. It’s not my cup of tea at all. Or should I say, it’s not my vial of coke. The writing always seemed to bear the imprint of cocaine or some other stimulant, and not in a good way. (Jonathan Safran Foer is in the same category for me.) I can’t read these writers who ramble and ramble, I just can’t do it. But I know a lot of other people really do like him. It sounds like he had a very sad life and I just feel bad for the guy, and for the people he hurt.

Nah, you’re a stodgy curmudgeon.

I’m a pretentious douchebag jerk.

Distinctions matter, man!!

Jacquernagy, DFW was not a coke fiend or speed freak. He was much more about booze and weed. His brain was so big and so dynamic that he was looking to slow it down and manage the noise.

Okay, found it - it was indeed Mary Karr on Fresh Air. It’s actually an interesting interview and not really vituperative at all. However I’m guilty of a faulty memory and exaggerating a bit. The actual quote is:

“He was violent, he became violent when he was angry. I’m not the only woman he was violent with. It’s common knowledge among women who dated him that he was violent.”

Oh man, that’s even worse. That’s like Howard Hughes level, OCD, uncontrollable mental energy. It needs to be channeled into something productive, which I guess his writing was, but not to enough of an extent to vent off the excess energy.

He wouldn’t be the first and won’t be the last, for whom an extreme level of excitability is both a blessing and a curse.

Not exactly. He was writing about what he knew. Halfway houses, tennis, etc.

…radical Quebecois separatists, experimental film, toxic waste dumps/New Hampshire…

A lexicon of computer jargon I read years ago includes the word “milliLampson”, and defines it as a unit of talking speed. It further describes the differences between the speed at which some people’s brains can generate ideas, and that their mouths can express them. I’ve often thought that something like that applied to DFW’s work. Infinite Jest reads like the work of someone whose brain could think of things faster than his fingers could type them, but that didn’t stop him from trying.

To me, it’s a bit like tough talk: if you’re gonna do it, you need to be able to back it up. And DFW could: he really was just that clever. There’s little of his that I haven’t enjoyed, and sometimes exactly because of that brazen audaciousness of having footnotes with footnotes and whatnot that otherwise might seem like a hundred-pound weakling threatening to beat me up.

The only thing I’ve read of his I think he wasn’t quite suited for was ‘Everything and More’, a history / explanation of mathematical notions of infinity. Other than that, there’s little that doesn’t at least have a spark of genuine genius, and much that absolutely brims with it.

I didn’t quite love DT Max’s biography—to me, it had a certain aura of self-servitude, sort of piggybacking on Wallace’s fame and notoriety.

I’m quite saddened to hear about the depths of Wallace’s abusiveness—and even a little more saddened that I’m not that shocked. To me, whether I can draw a line between an artist and their art heavily depends on the nature of the art, and in what way the artist’s flaws impact on it.

Mathematics and physics are easy: general relativity remains a beautiful and valid theory even if Einstein was pretty shitty to his wife. On the other end of the scale, I deeply struggle with my appreciation of Lovecraft: it’s not just that he was a xenophobe, it’s that it seems to me that without his xenophobia—his fear of everything that’s different—he probably couldn’t have conceived of the horrors he penned. So his flaws are instrumental to his art, in this sense.

From the works of Wallace I know, I think I can pretty clearly separate them from his abusiveness. At least on first blush, there’s nothing I can think of that now makes sense retrospectively, given knowledge of his abuses. So I guess that’s what he is for me: a great artist who could be a shitty human being, but whose art remains great despite said shittyness.

Still, though, it’s sad. One always hopes that those one admires for one thing be exemplary in every way. But very few, if any, ever are.

Really well stated.

Added thought: I agree with this and it seems to be true of a lot of encounters/ relationships he had, from the interview he did with the guy who wrote the book that became the Jason Segel movie, and certainly with Jonathan Franzen. Everything related to him relative to his genius - I can’t imagine.

It does tangentially affect how I see his work, a little bit. I mean great artist has violently tempestuous personal life is hardly news, but I always admired his public persona [plus the fact that he actually had one, unlike other, older, tier one US writers who keep their heads down]. The sadness of the human condition was obv a big theme of his writing, but like Crotalus said, he seemed to want to tackle it by being a kind and thoughtful person, and made this message in an inspiring way.
So hearing that his personal life is upside down and he’s chasing after women like a deranged tit was surprising to me and does make some of the things he said (outside of his work) ring a bit hollow.

End of the day, though, Infinite Jest and the Pale King are so monumentally good that DFW falling short in his personal life can’t really put a dent in things. It’s not like he was just another good writer where you might be inclined to re-appraise.